US Diplomat Faces Foreign Brand of Justice
Bolivian case may be first time US turned over its own diplomat to another country.
In what may be the first time the United States has turned one of its own diplomats over to a foreign government to face trial, a former counternarcotics official stationed in Bolivia is on trial for allegedly misappropriating US aid for the war on drugs.Skip to next paragraph
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David Duchow is accused of embezzling $123,000 worth of US-supplied fuel. But rather than prosecuting him in a US federal court, State Department and US Embassy officials decided to withdraw Mr. Duchow's diplomatic immunity and turn him over to Bolivian authorities.
If convicted, Duchow, a US citizen who denies any wrongdoing, faces as many as three years in a Bolivian prison populated by some of the same drug traffickers he helped convict.
Duchow's lawyers say such a prison arrangement could be a death sentence. "If he is convicted and goes to jail [in Bolivia], he is a dead man, because 80 percent of the people in jail are convicted narcotics traffickers," says Bruce Zagaris, a Washington lawyer hired by Duchow's father.
US officials downplay any potential danger to Duchow. And they say the Bolivian system of justice is more than adequate.
"We decided that while the Bolivian justice system had many flaws, they would not prevent Mr. Duchow from receiving a fair trial," says a State Department official, who asked that his name not be used.
The State Department's most recent human rights report on Bolivia isn't as optimistic. It says in part: "The judiciary is independent, but corruption and intimidation in the judicial system remain major problems. Poor pay and working conditions help make judges and prosecutors susceptible to bribes."
The State Department does not maintain statistics on how many US diplomats have been turned over to foreign governments to face criminal prosecution. But officials and experts say they are aware of none prior to the Duchow case. In virtually every other case where a US diplomat has been charged for criminal activity overseas, that diplomat has been returned to the US to stand trial, experts say.
The US Embassy fired Duchow in 1995 and filed a criminal complaint with Bolivian prosecutors. Evidence gathered by the Inspector General's Office of the State Department was turned over to the Bolivians, and the US Embassy hired a local lawyer to help overworked Bolivian prosecutors pursue the case.
What is it about the Duchow case that caused the US to take such unprecedented action to insist he be prosecuted in Bolivia?
'All a misunderstanding'
For his part, Duchow says it is all a misunderstanding. "I have nothing to hide on this," he says in a telephone interview from Bolivia. "I did not steal any fuel. There was no self-enrichment."
Duchow says sometimes it was necessary in his remote posting to trade fuel for spare parts or other services needed to conduct counternarcotics operations. "Occasionally the fuel was used for trading purposes, but it was never used for personal benefit," he says. "This is a drug war. When we need to do a mission, I have to look for a way to make the mission go."
He says he advised his supervisors about the trades, "but ... their answer was always: 'Do what you have to do to get the mission going, but don't tell us.' "